Tales of the Phoenix City – Chapter 28

Lily loved the atmosphere at Em Nazih.
She’d come in the afternoons, when the hustle bustle of Beirut was kept to a minimum, shielded from the craziness by the small stone terrace tucked away in a tiny alley off Gemmayzeh.
She came to write in peace, the soft humming of the distant noise rocking her into concentration, her thoughts and agile fingers on her keyboard only interrupted by the sweet clinking of glasses and arguileh being cleaned. She felt at home, working away and taking her time to talk to Ali, one of the staff members, or with one of the daughters of the owners who taught Arabic to the plethora of alternative youth and possible secret services undercovers calling Beirut home for about three months. Rana, Nada and Nivine were all equally delightful and funny and Lily relished the moments she spent with them, all the while stuffing her face with the delicious batata harra made by their mother. The spices and coriander tickled her tongue while she laughed at Nivine’s latest tale of her pupils who often seemed puzzled to say the least by Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular. During these moments, she always felt incredibly lucky to live here, flaws and all. She had started to train herself in seeing beauty in the littlest things and it hit her hard just how much beauty there was going around.
Em Nazih’s tenants and patrons were a mix of Lebanese taking a breather from a city that could be overwhelming at the best of times and Western and Arab tourists and students learning Arabic and getting to know a country they only knew through the vilifying lens of their media back home. The bewildered looks on their face showed just how much they had trouble processing the clash between representation and reality. Em Nazih’s crowd was a melting pot of artists, secret agents, declared and underground revolutionaries, students, researchers, tourists, family and friends of the owners and staff. It was a place where good food met serious whispers, where laughter died in the fragrant smoke of the Arageel and where the cries of triumph of lucky backgammon players melted away in the frenetic honking that was Beirut’s regular soundtrack.

However, Lily had no time today to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. Today, she was writing a piece on a new young woman author whom Gabrielle knew through her gazillion networks. The author had just launched her latest novel which dealt with two women in Aleppo trying to forget their damaged past and forge a future for themselves (these feminists, thought Lily, you can’t ask them the time of day without them writing a novel on women’s paths and oppression and stereotyping and whatnots). She had enjoyed the book nonetheless, and thought featuring the author in her column along with a photoshoot by Gabrielle could make a nice little piece.

And so there she was, taking notes for her article while Gaby’s voice in the back garden resonated against the stone walls. Grace was also there to assist Gabrielle, and perhaps, just perhaps, to soften the blow that could be Gabrielle’s personality. Poor little author.
Except the author seemed to be taking a great liking in Gaby, sharing the same vision as her friend and furthering her suggestions.

– Right, sit down in front of this door! Great, show me your hand with the rings! Grace, habibi, where is the cherry lip gloss? We could really work with some colors here!

Lily watched as the author put on more make up. Gabrielle really had a good eye: the author was wearing a deep mint green midi dress with matching green open toed ballet flats adorned with golden butterflies, topped with a lavender belt. The deep pink lipstick made her black eyes and hair stand out. Gaby had her pose in front of a pinkish door, her back to a weather beaten wall. The overall effect was urban, a tad melancholic and romantic with an edge, which suited the atmosphere of her book just fine.

– Tayb, now try and climb on this ledge.
The author’s eyebrows went up to her hairline.
– Listen Gaby, I do not climb ledges. As a matter of fact, I am not known for my climbing, or for my motor skills for that matters, so excuse me, but I think I will not go anywhere near that ledge.
Gabrielle looked a little discomfited while Lily and Grace stifled a laugh. Gaby didn’t seem to know what to do with this highly unusual opposition. A look to Grace who was busying herself with the make up bag to mask her hilarity had her frown, then laugh as well.

– Fine, no ledge. Jesus Fucking Christ, I hate divas. Yalla, sit down in front of this derelict door and turn your head this way!
– Much obliged, piped the author with a playful smile.

Lily was enjoying this column more than she had thought. The clicking of Gabrielle’s camera to her back, she started gathering the notes of her earlier interview with the author, making it into a coherent, witty and informative text. At some point, she had asked the author if she, like one of her characters, had a way too keep on fighting when life threw hardships at her. The author had this quirky response Lily had not paid attention to before.

Yes I do. It’s going to sound supremely stupid and cheesy, but it helps me nonetheless. When I feel like I can’t cope with life anymore, I shake myself and ask myself ‘what would Beyonce do?’. Seriously, can you imagine this woman being depressed or taking crap from anything or anyone? She’d sass them into oblivion. Now as a feminist, I see clearly how she participates to an industry that oppresses women in many ways but regardless of that. She exudes force and control and just sheer vibe of life. So I instantly picture myself like Beyonce in an impossible headdress, sky-scrapers heels clicking away as I pound the floor looking at life and shaking my head like ‘Oh no no no, this ain’t how it’s going to happen’. And yes I feel better’.

Writing this, Lily paused and took a sip of her Turkish coffee.

What would Beyonce do?
Huh.

A Ribbon Around a Bomb

We are currently at Nasawiya working on a book on the women who inspire us, interviewing “regular” women whose stories reveal their strength, trying to showcase alternative forms of leadership.

This got me thinking about what strength is, to how the mere concept of strength is riddled with misconceptions and stereotypes. Is keeping quiet and holding in every feeling or negative emotion a form of strength? Is enduring abuse and misery for all eternity a form of strength or is having the courage to recognize and leave certain situations that define us as strong? What is feminist leadership? I don’t buy into this whole “women’s leadership style is softer than men’s bla bla bla” because it simply replicates and reorganises gender stereotypes and prejudices, so what are we talking about when we’re trying to illustrate feminist and women’s leadership? Rest assured, we’re not talking about women in power suits, buying into patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, denying their fellow females employees the right to maternity leave because they want to play “the big boys game”. We’re talking about the unsung heroes of our every day lives who manage to realise what they want for and by themselves. We’re talking about women who may not have the economic power, the connections or the privileges to help them realise and fulfil themselves and move mountains, yet women who do it anyway. We’re also talking about women who might have had all that, yet chose a path that was truly theirs, questioning the very essence of their privileges along the way.

These debates prompted several images to me. Sometimes your brain is a kaledeiscope you can’t control. I remembered that older Egyptian woman yelling at a startled policeman with all her might during the 25th of January revolution. I remembered the Palestinian mothers crying while Israeli soldiers were arresting her son for no reason at all except that he was Palestinian. I remembered that woman joking after her radiotherapy sessions, and so what if they had just removed that tumour from her breast. At least it was not there anymore. And for some reason, I had the image of Frida Kahlo pop up in my mind.

I am not an art critic, but some paintings have always resonated in me: amongst them, Frida Kahlo’s paintings strike a chord in me that triggers an irrepressible sentiment of feeling so impossibly alive, in all the tragic vivid sorrowful joy of the term. And yes I have written vivid sorrowful joy. Her brush strokes manage to conjure up love, pain, change, transformation, death and revolution. Her paintings are life itself, and they invite the onlooker to a feast of colours and questions.

Frida Kahlo has become somewhat of a feminist icon, and how could she not? We’re talking here about a woman who was born in 1907 yet changed her birth day to 1910 to make it coincide with the start of the Mexican revolution. A woman who chose not to comply by social gendered norms by sporting a uni-brow and not shaving under her arms. A woman who by the age of 6 had polio, making sure she would limp her whole life. A woman who at the age of 18 was in a terrible bus accident that left her almost dead, her whole body badly bruised and broken, unable to have children. A woman who questioned every label that people gave her, trying to make her paintings fit into a certain category. A woman who married and divorced and married again the same man, Diego Rivera, to which she used to tell “I had two big accidents in my life Diego, the trolley and you… You are by far the worse”. A Communist woman who happened to stumble into a passionate love affair with Leo Trotsky. A woman who was deeply in love with her husband yet had affairs with women. A woman who you so obviously can’t classify, she sends us all back to the own labels we accept without any form of protest.

Maybe this is what feminist leadership is: protesting labels affixed to us on a daily basis. You over there, you’re such a girl! And you over there, that was such an Arab thing to say! Most of the time, we smile tensely while punching in our mind the little comic ingratiating us with these remarks. Perhaps it is time we pull a Frida.

Kahlo’s most interesting feature (at least to me and since this is my blog I’ll happily go along) is her relationship to her body, a relationship she translated so outrageously in her paintings. I say outrageous because it’s the appropriate word. Frida’s paintings could not suffer the word “beautiful”. Seriously, beautiful is a word you use to describe the painting of a lotus flower on a pond of ylang-ylang essence. Put a Kahlo in your living room and be assured no one will exclaim “How beautifully quaint!” but rather “where should I put my eyes her boobs are looking at me”. But I digress. That body of hers was her own private little torture room (sounds familiar?): she had polio, she had that accident that broke her spine and about all her bones, she got pregnant, she miscarried every time. She stated herself that she felt terribly alone each time she had to go back to a hospital, alone in that body that was betraying her so blatantly. Yet she never gave up on it: she drew it metaphorically, her spine becoming a crumbling column riddling her body with pain so intense it felt like nails in her flesh. When she had to wear a cast she drew on it the sickle and hammer of the Communist party and a foetus. What she could not create, a flesh and blood baby, she created nonetheless.

Do you get that? She replaced seemingly impossibility to create by creation. Perhaps we should remember than when we destroy out bodies, wishing for them to be the copy of airbrushed things that don’t exist. And perhaps we should remember the Fridas we know, and ponder a bit more on feminist leadership.

Tales of the Phoenix City – chapter 13

The city was her haven, the slabs of concrete felt moist and tender beneath her feet, the piercing noises of every day life were the perfect symphony to her dreams. Gabrielle had taken to ramble through the streets whenever the political climate felt unstable and volatile, acting just the opposite of what everyone was doing. Instead of retreating home, she confronted the insecurity heads on, with the suicidal bravado of fools and heroes, going further deep within herself rather than within the closed four walls of a womb-like house where the feeling of safety was nothing more than an illusion. Thanks to the living hell that was her home when she was growing up, she knew full well that sometimes, houses and bricks can be the shield behind which oppressors operate. Her childhood house still haunted her to this day, and she knew very well that even people who knew her inside and out and since forever could not really understand what had happened there to leave such an imprint on her. In truth, no one had ever heard screams coming out from the cream colored rooms of her youth, her mother never had to invent some far-fetched story to explain blues and bruises. There was no open, visible case of violence to study.
But the violence was there, ensconced in the silence, in the tension of her two parents waging each other a mute war of wills, in the repressed movements of anger from her father, in his demeaning demeanor, in his outright indifference to his children. The violence was there in her mother’s Valium, in her sighs, in her elegant ennui, in her short temper and in her glaring unhappiness. Gabrielle had spent her childhood years trying to dodge imaginary and real bullets, not knowing where to turn, torn between the out in the open conflict outside of her doors and the war that wouldn’t tell its name within them. She had started taking pictures of everything she saw when she was thirteen even though she could not always have them developed because of the bombings, when the need to do something with her own skin got too scalding hot, turning to taking photos of herself and her body so that she could create a stare, an external pair of eyes through the camera, to mirror who she was, as no one around her seemed to be bothered. The old Leica soon became her best friend and the witness of an adolescent’s changing body, a change Gabrielle was very careful not to welcome by keeping extra slim. If becoming a woman meant becoming her mother, she’s pass on all the kebbe in the world.

At the time, she used to think it was either that or turning to drugs.

Thankfully, she grew up, and left this house of despair. She had now manage to create a safe golden peaceful home of her own that smelt of the delicious recipes of her lover, filling the walls with cinnamon, sugar and honey, replacing the acrid smell of tensions: however, the hint of the feeling of claustrophobia remained and was hard to shake.

As much as she loved Grace, she still had times where she could only bear being outside, by herself, something her partner understood and never questioned. She would leave early in the morning, her satchel safely strapped across her shoulder, her camera completing her hand, her phone switched to silent.
She entrusted the city with her head, and pleaded with Beirut to replace the racing thoughts and worries with bits and pieces of beauty gleaned here and there.
– Bonjour habibi!
Abou Brahim, her lovely neighbour who kept watch of everything happening in their alley, always greeted her in this French fashion, no matter how many times she would answer a hearty Marhaba Abou Brahim. A 3arouss picon in one hand, he would then proceed with asking her how she was, also in French, as if to demonstrate his various skills.
Gaby had shot him many times over, the fine lines on his worn out face the map of loss, pain and joy that had happened to the country, his droopy eyes always twinkling. Abou Brahim seemed to be always living in a state of perpetual relief, as if he felt happy and content since 1990, while Gaby, when she was in her exploratory moods, seemed unable to project herself in anything else than a dark pit of more conflict.

Which, in all fairness, was not far from reality, the way things were going.

Roaming the streets, she descended in her own self, her sharp trained eyes spotting every scenes, worried expressions of mothers going about their business, their joyful children hip hopping behind them, pensive, serious faces of older men reading the newspapers with the look of people smelling trouble a-coming. She tried capturing the essence of her Beirut, if in fact it even existed, as she seemed to doubt it lately. What if Beirut was nothing more than a mosaic of realities never colliding with one another? Until now, she had always pictured her beloved city as layers: the shiny, outrageous, in your face bling of the nouveaux riches downing Cristal while shaking fake breasts in front of an overweight Saudi being the first thing people and tourists would notice, with real, Beiruti people trying to make ends meet by working 14 hours a day on dire conditions, several layers below.

She had come to learn, through her lens, than reality was much, much more complex.

Losing herself in the graffitis adorning the walls of her city, passing the Phat and Ashekman art, walking further up to Hamra street, she noticed a tiny one hidden next to a parking lot, close to the Dunkin Donuts. She bent down closer and magnified it.

It read: if graffiti was useful, it would be illegal.

Pondering on this statement, and intrigued, she carried on, the smog of the outdated cars engulfing her lovingly in their cancerous mist.

Melancholy, that old friend, held her in her grip, and Beirut herself seemed so sad and lost, she could not do anything for her.

– habibti, there can’t be to Weeping Willows within your walls, one of us has to cheer up.

It was a Strange Time

It was a strange time, a time for sorrow and fake laughter, a time for violence and greed, a time where profit ruled the world, the Lord of all small and mighty things, the God of slaves chained to it. It was a strange time, a time where life had no meaning except when it came to controlling people’s bodies, where words like peace came loaded with ugly meaning, where justice came hand in hand with security, void of their meaning, turned into weapons of corruption and discrimination.

It was a strange time, a time where a mini skirt could get you raped and a veil on your head killed, a time of lies made by wolves not even bothering to hide their teeth anymore, a time where bare feet were aplenty, pounding the soil of a spoiled soiled earth in search of something long gone, dignity.

It was a strange time, a time where culture was to be flaunted and not cultivated, a time where books needed to bring money and not knowledge, a time where the magic of words had been trapped and replaced by the nauseating prose of publicity.

It was a strange time, a time where how much you earned and where you worked were more important than the amount of blood you had on your hands, a time where elders rot in their desolated homes for weeks before the stench bothered their neighbours, a time where your life was glittery on computer and your inside putrid with loneliness.

It was a strange time, a time where sex had stopped being beautiful to become dangerous and threatening, a time where love was a quaint notion measured by the size of the ring of your finger , a time where family ties were frayed and broken by the lightings of bombs and selfishness and superficiality.

It was a strange time, a time where happiness was a dare, resistance the only means of existence, where rediscovering feelings of solidarity and equality stopped being dreamers’ luxuries to turn into necessary realities.

It was a time for standing up, it was a time for refusals, it was a time for strength and courage and drive. It was a time to replace charity by justice, it was a time to reoccupy bodies and minds, it was a time to oust tyrants and fight opportunists, it was a time for change. It was a time for a global revolution, it was a time to find back our voice, it was a time to escape manipulation and go back to the realms of reason. 

It was a strange time, my time, but I chose my side. 

Tales of the Phoenix City, All in one places on Storify

Link: Tales of the Phoenix City, All in one places on Storify

Follow the stories of Nina, Ziad, Yasmin, Lili and the others and read the first 5 chapters of the Tales on Storify. The page will be updated like the blog, every Friday. 

Hope you enjoy!

Tales of the Phoenix City, Chapter 5

Nina stood frozen, looking at the bride heaving and crying, her body slumped amidst the acres of fabric, looking like a broken puppet. 

What should I do now? Having a bride cry from happiness and emotion was one thing; consoling tears of sorrow was quite another. 

She decided to keep quiet and let Yasmin compose herself. 

         Mnjdj end luf him came a muffled sound from below the veil.

Please God, let her not put any make up on the pristine dress. Like, please. Thinking of the cleanliness of the dress might have been Nina’s defense mechanism to avoid dealing with Yasmin’s evident pain, but somehow she doubted it. It’s just that the dress had taken so much time and effort and passion, and to see it already creased and soon to be smeared with mascara and khôl broke a tiny part of Nina’s heart.

– Sorry habibte i didnt quite get that. Come again please?

And get your weeping face out of the dress I beg of you.

Sometimes, Nina wondered if that job was not going to make a schizophrenic out of her.

         I don’t love him!!! cried Yasmin, tears and snot running down her face. 

Nina went to fetch a glass of water and a box of tissues and sat herself beside her. 

Somehow, the fairy tale was slowly turning into some kind of ridicule nightmare, and Nina asked herself why designers, hairdressers and bartenders were the Chosen recipients of Drama, Neurosis and Problems. Surely they should charge more for that added service? That’d help me with the workshop, thought Nina half-smiling, then promptly returning her focus to the weeping figure she had next to her.

Yasmin gulped the glass of water. She looked like a deflated doll, too thin, grey faced, and looking considerably older than she really was.

         Well, if you don’t, then why are you marrying him? 

Yasmin looked like all the fight had gone from her usual defensive aggressive face. 

         Because it’s what everybody’s is doing. Because I’m 25 and that’s what I’m expected to do. Because we’re a good match on paper. Because he has the means to keep me to the manner I’m accustomed to. Because our families know each other. Because I’m suffocating at home and want to flee, and marriage is my get out of jail card. 

Nina had the image of two pillar-parents flanking their daughter, not the kind that supports, but rather, the kind that oppresses.

– Well, if you’re that unhappy, I don’t think any amount of diamonds and appropriateness is ever going to change the fact that you’re marrying someone you don’t love. Looks to me like you re exchanging a servitude for another. 

Yasmin had a bitter laugh. So young and already so bitter. This wasn’t right. 

         What do you know about all this? You’re not married are you? Why didn’t you ever get married? Don’t you fear of ending up alone?

         But I like alone, Nina blurted out, almost without paying attention. I’m happy alone.

         They all say that.

         Who they?

         All the ones who couldn’t get someone to marry them.

         What kind of utter crap have people been feeding you, I ask you? “Couldn’t get someone to marry me”! Little lady, I never got married because I never found the real thing and simply couldn’t and wouldn’t settle for less. And trust me, in Lebanon, with my family putting pressure on me, I would have given in perhaps just like you, except that I have found reward and happiness in my job. I have made it happen for myself, I’m glad to live alone, get together with friends, enjoy my life the way it is.

Nina then spotted the dress Yasmin was still wearing.

         Look at that dress. Look at the fabric, the work, the preciousness of it. I work with high quality garment, do you think I would settle for a cheap life and a third rate love? Why on earth would someone wake up every single day next to someone they hate just so that they can wear a dress and pretend to be happy in front of their family?

Yasmin was having none of it and was far from being impressed.

         If I’m too choosy, I’ll wind up alone .

         Then maybe you’re gonna need to start liking alone, and start liking yourself a little more.  

         How so? I’m getting married

         There is no solitude more bitter than the one that is shared, said Nina getting up. If you marry him, you’re setting yourself up for utter failure in your life, failure no Hummer, no gifts and no material possession will ever make up for. You’re not marrying this guy and that’s the end of it, not in my dress anyway. Take it off, you’re not worth it. My brides know what they want and go for it, if you’re not capable of that, you’re not worth the labour of my petite mains. Now take it off.

Yasmin couldn’t move, and stood frozen, unable to utter a word, when the door burst open to let a young women holding a camera on her shoulder enter, soaking wet.

– Jesus Fucking Christ, what’s this fucking weather?

Nina took the woman by the shoulders and pushed her in front of Yasmin:

         Lesson number 1 to change your screwed up value system: Marriage is not the only long term partnership one can think of, it’s only one among many. Yasmin, meet Gabrielle, long time friend, great curser of all times, and photographer extraordinaire. Gabrielle, meet Yasmin, and would you tell her how you’ve been living with Grace, the love of your life, for the past 5 years?

– Yes habibi, Nina told a flabbergasted Yasmin, those two are one of the most equal and loving relation I have ever seen. Think about it as the first earthquake your mind desperately needs: there is a whole world of options out there, and you’re not stuck anywhere, or with anyone. Now take off that dress!